'Orientalism', the Evolution of a Concept

December 1, 1998 Topic: Economics Tags: Islamism

'Orientalism', the Evolution of a Concept

In his much visited web site devoted to the Asian financial panic, economist Paul Krugman has said, "Anyone who claims to fully understand the economic disaster that has overtaken Asia proves, by that very certainty, that he does not know what he is talking about." And he adds the warning, "Nobody really knows what comes next."

Even if it is too early to be certain about the causes and the course of these momentous events, it is time enough to reconsider some of the things that were being said about the Asian economies when they were still flourishing. More particularly, it is already profitable to reconsider things that were being said, in the light of Asia's booming prosperity before July 1997, about Western economies, politics, values, and sciences. It is not just that so many people extrapolated adventurously and predicted that Asia, led by China or Japan, would soon eclipse the economies of America and Europe; people extrapolate wildly all the time. It is that so many drew the conclusions that Asia's prosperity disproved economic science, impugned Western democracy, cast doubt on rational policy-making and even on reason itself, and turned probity into a quaint curio.

These bold conclusions might have been drawn less readily if the ground had not been prepared by the academic doctrine, taught in all our universities for twenty years, that the West has always been wrong about Asia anyway. Its supposed knowledge of Asia, this doctrine maintained, was trumpery called "Orientalism", which was not, as it pretended, a body of objective learning but (in the words of Edward Said) "the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient . . . a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. . . . European culture was able to manage--and even produce--the Orient."

Naturally, if our knowledge of Asia was really only a partisan delusion, a way of demeaning Asians' affairs to the level of a Chu Chin Chow pantomime, then we must fail to understand what was happening in their economies. If Asians were prospering mightily using methods all of their own devising, while Westerners wallowed in smug superiority, then it was inevitable that our students of Asia would find much to criticize at home. Even if they held no brief for Asian values, they were bound to take a swipe at Western values. They laid on with a will, as a few select quotations will illustrate.

Thus James Fallows in Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System (1994) drew from the study of Asia the moral, "Western societies should concentrate on whether and how to remake themselves." They should start by remaking economic science: "The powers of 'quantitative analysis', as used by modern economists and managers, are enormous but nonetheless limited. . . . The economists of the 1990s cannot honestly fit the rise of Japan, Korea and Taiwan into their models of how economies should grow. . . . Economics gives us clear logical 'models' that are supposed to explain dealings among nations. History gives us different, more complicated lessons, which are more useful for understanding what is going on in Asia now."

What would replace Western economics was "a new paradigm", said John Naisbitt in Megatrends Asia: The Eight Asian Megatrends that are Reshaping Our World (1996). It consisted of the network of networks set up by the overseas Chinese, which constituted "the third largest economy in the world." Speaking of the businessmen who were later driven into exile from Indonesia after their homes were burned down, their wives and daughters raped, and their supermarkets looted, Naisbitt said a knowledge of their methods would be more useful than economic theory. Sterling Seagrove emphatically agreed in his Lords of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese (1995). It was "the Chinese, their management savvy and their international connections" that explained how the armed forces of Thailand and Indonesia had become "fabulously rich."

Such arrangements, which were baptized "network capitalism", were not peculiarly Chinese. R. Taggart Murphy, in The Weight of the Yen (1996), said they were also the basis of the Japanese economy: "What really matters for a Japanese company are the strength and credibility of its network. Its 'capital' consists less of yen than the number and quality of its relationships." Jim Rohwer's Asia Rising: How History's Biggest Middle Class Will Change the World (1996) averred that Asia's economies would dominate the world, but it was one of the few books that had reservations about Asia's "failure to move beyond the informal and the personal in its way of doing business." That was a discreet reference to what is nowadays openly deplored as the nepotism and crony capitalism that characterize the "networks."

Having dumped economic science for the study of the networks, many Asian specialists went on to express doubts about Western political systems. Eamonn Fingleton in Blindside: Why Japan is Still on Track to Overtake the U.S. by 2000 (1995) found the source of America's supposed inferiority in Congress and the U.S. bureaucracy, along with excessive American individualism. "In truth, the United States is, unbeknownst to itself, in the throes of a constitutional crisis", he said. He had only praise for Japanese institutions that are, for their part, now in the throes of prosecutions, forced resignations, and suicides.

Warren Reed and Reg Little had already, in The Confucian Renaissance (1989), given the credit for East Asian prosperity to a set of Asian values that included "rule by men, or virtue, rather than by law", "institutional pragmatism and rule by officials", and "rejection of Western individualism as spiritual pollution." They thought these values would eventually prevail worldwide and they backed the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's prediction that globalization would in effect mean Confucianization. They returned to the attack, with infelicitous timing, in The Tyranny of Fortune (1997), in which they derided Westerners' "misplaced scientific faith." They asked rhetorically, "Is it possible that the triumph of rationality has been revealed as flawed and limited? Is it possible that rationality will not finally conquer traditional forms of life which Weber thought were doomed? Is it possible that Eastern right-brain, associative, holistic and intuitive ways of thinking are pointing to weaknesses in aggressive Western left-brain, linear, mechanistic and rational thinking? As the rational ideals of liberal democracy and market economics have been taken to extremes, have they left Western societies in danger of fragmentation and disintegration, vulnerable to the more coherent, more traditional and, in at least one sense of the word, more humane economies of East Asia?"

They were not alone in making the bold leap from Asian economic expansion to a rejection of Western rationality. John Gray's Enlightenment's Wake (1995) cited the success of the Asian tigers in achieving economic growth while ignoring Western free-market policy prescriptions as one reason among others for renouncing Enlightenment values. Gray dismissed the scientific worldview as "merely one of the many superstitions of Enlightenment culture." Asia was above such superstition. As John Ralston Saul said in Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992), "The Chinese looked into formal logic well before we became obsessed with it and found it less important than other things."

Said's Impact

There was, then, a fairly widespread inclination to find in Asian export statistics and GDP growth a justification for deriding economics, democracy, and reason as the baubles of the backward West. Such an inclination might seem merely venal, as placing a higher value on commercial performance than on principle, but it was prepared by an intellectual effort of some vigor and ingenuity. The denunciation of Western arrogance and hedonism in books such as Shintaro Ishihara's The Voice of Asia (1995) was probably no more influential in this than the similar rantings of certain Southeast Asian politicians. The argument required academic respectability, and this it acquired from Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and the considerable amount of work that that book has directly inspired. The common project here was to establish that all formal Western knowledge of Asia was vitiated by the unstated assumption that the Westerner is "rational, virtuous, mature, normal", whereas the Oriental is "irrational, aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior." In seeking to undo that contrast, even to reverse it perhaps, the fact of prodigious, independent economic achievement in Asia would be highly relevant. As Hung-chao Tai said in Confucianism and Economic Development: An Oriental Alternative? (1989), "For precisely the reasons noted in Said's Orientalism . . . the West has failed to recognize the significance of the difference between the West and Japan. . . . Though Said dealt only with Western studies on the Middle East, his criticism of Western scholarship is considered equally applicable to Western studies on Asia as a whole."

Actually, when Said's book appeared critics said just the opposite. Bernard Lewis, for example, said in a piece reproduced in Islam and the West (1993) that Said's attempt to pass off the Middle East (and at that a Middle East without Turkey, Persia, and, of course, Israel) as "the Orient" was grotesque. That was something that Said's numerous acolytes set out to repair. V.Y. Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa (1988) and then in The Idea of Africa (1994) applied Said's anti-Orientalist arguments "to interrogate Western images of Africa [by] analyzing the power of anthropologists, missionaries and ideologists." The conclusion was that knowledge was everywhere corrupted by power. Imperialism and cultural dominance generated bogus "colonial sciences" and a false conception of Africa, which was then forced upon Africans themselves.

Rana Kabbani in Europe's Myth of Empire (1985) found that identical considerations applied to all Western knowledge of the Third World. What Said had discovered in scholarship about the Middle East was true of Western pseudo-knowledge about all Asian peoples. By 1995 James G. Carrier could say in Occidentalism: Images of the West that "Said's work is so influential that 'Orientalism' has become a generic term for a particular suspect type of anthropological thought" (meaning thought about other cultures). A major effort went into extending the reach of Said's destructive argument to India, that is, to Indology and all Western study of the subcontinent's history, culture, and economy. Ronald Inden's Imagining India (1990), Javed Majeed's Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's History of British India and Orientalism (1992), and Kate Teltscher's India Inscribed: European and British Writing on India (1995)--in addition to a copious literature in the journals--all sought to show that the West's purported knowledge of things Indian was polluted by the power the West wielded over Asian societies. Inden said it was not "a question of prejudice or bias, of the like or dislike of the peoples or cultures of Asia, or of a lack either of objectivity or empathy"; rather it was a question of "the relationship of dominance embedded [in] the structure of ideas that constitutes orientalism." That meant that, since all Westerners were, willy nilly, implicated in that dominance, no matter how they might try they could not escape the corruption of their knowledge of Asia by falsehood. Inden proceeded to dismiss as worthless almost everything ever written in the West about Hinduism, the caste system, and the economics of Indian village life.

Majeed agreed with Said that "the Orient was in a very real sense the creation of a whole apparatus of intellectual practices which were a part of . . . the epistemological ventures which were integral to European imperialism." While criticizing Said's "rather monolithic and ahistorical" view of Orientalism, Majeed nevertheless argued that even Hinduism was a European construct. "In some ways the [British] Asiatic Society initiated the integration of the vast collection of myths, beliefs, rituals, and laws into a coherent religion, and shaped an amorphous heritage into the faith now known as Hinduism."

Teltscher began her study of "discourses" about India by saying, "My methods are deeply indebted to Edward Said's Orientalism, the founding work in the study of colonial discourse. I share Said's basic contention that knowledge of the Orient is linked to the exercise of colonial power." Yet she also announced that she would exclude from these "discourses" all unpublished material (i.e., what historians call documents), and she would ignore "the vast body of statistical and economic research" produced from the time of the East India Company. In that she was following Foucault and Said who dismiss all such social research as the manic impulse to classify man and nature into types. By concentrating rather on such books as Kipling's Kim, one could easily show that Europeans had little that was objective to say about India.

The campaign to discredit Western scholarship about Asia as mere Orientalism went so far that some Asian scholars became alarmed. The anthropologist Akbar Ahmed said, "It has led to a cul-de-sac. 'Orientalism' itself has become a clichŽ, and third world literature is now replete with accusations and labels of Orientalism being hurled by critics and at one another at the slightest excuse. This has had a stultifying effect on the dispassionate evaluation of scholarship."

The Egyptian philosopher Fuad Zakaria joined other Arab scholars in denouncing Said as "unscientific and arbitrary", questioned whether he was serious, and accused him of denigrating all that was secularist and modernizing in Arab culture.

Obviously, any Arab who allowed that there might be some point in this or that Western criticism could be accused of falling into the delusions of Orientalism. B.S. Sayyid has confirmed that Said's book is used by Islamist reactionaries to discredit all forms of Western enquiry, from journalism to human rights campaigns. Said's "recklessness has opened doors to obscurantism and tyranny", Sayyid says. The venerable International Congress of Orientalists took fright and changed its name to the International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa. Orientalism was coming to mean Western pseudo-knowledge that was imperialist, racist, ethnocentric, and ''profoundly anti-empirical." In postmodernist jargon, it was "the stereotyping disempowerment of the exoticized Other."

German Scholarship and Asian "Decadence"

It is quite likely that some such description fits some of the sixty thousand books on Asian subjects published in the West between 1800 and 1950. (Anything about la mission civilisatrice de l'Europe would be suspect, for example.) But most were either fairly arid, technical research studies on Asian languages, literatures, and religions, or the application of one of the social sciences to what came to be called "area studies." There is, however, one strand of speculative scholarship about Asia that has enjoyed some credit in the West but was generally resented in the East because it implied Asia's unfitness for economic progress otherwise than under the domination of Western capitalism. It is a specifically German line of thought that runs from Hegel to Marx and Weber.

It begins not with the Other but with the Same; that is, with the German obsession with the myth of the Aryan race, which has played so fateful a role in Germany's history. At a time when Germany had no colonies (so that what Foucault and Said call the power/knowledge nexus would be completely irrelevant), German scholars began the search for the oldest forms of religion and of language, in the belief that they would be found among the Aryans, from whom both Indians and Germans had sprung. Sir William Jones' suggestion that Sanskrit and the classical European tongues had a common origin in an Indo-Germanic language was enthusiastically received, and a score of chairs of Indology sprang up across nineteenth-century Germany at a time when Britain, which ruled India, had only three. To this day there are chairs in Germany that combine Indology and Indo-Germanic languages.

The belief in the ancient spiritual glories of India posed the question of India's later "decadence"--and German Romanticism provided the answer. According to JŸrgen LŸth, "Once a people has unfolded its spirit to its fullest expression--thus the Romantic notion runs--it has fulfilled its role in history and only repetition ('revivals'), stagnation and decay can follow. 'Stagnation' became a key-word characterizing Indian civilization after Sankara. It found its way into the general writings of philosophers like Hegel, Marx and Spengler."

With Hegel this became the dogma that India, indeed all Asia, "had no history", at least no more history, their sun having set. In his Lessons on the Philosophy of History, Hegel said that the history of the Oriental states "is for the most part really unhistorical, for it is only the repetition of the same majestic ruin." Karl Marx largely accepted this and volunteered to provide the explanation: Oriental despotism, and the Asiatic Mode of Production. He and Engels argued that Asia had no revolutionary force to propel its "stagnant" or "reactionary and regressive" society into capitalism because the state's monopoly of land-holding reduced all to "general slavery." With no private property in land, there were no social classes, and hence no class conflict--which was the motor of all history to date. Hence there could be no revolution, no progress, no history. In Capital we can see Marx using tainted sources--British colonial officers (often admirers of Edmund Burke, determined to find sturdy peasants and paternalist chiefs wherever they looked)--to build up a largely mythical vision of Indian village life. But the theory that only a violent exogenous force, capitalist imperialism, could bring "progress" to stagnant Asia and never mind the suffering was Marx and Engels at their dogmatic historicist worst. Their undisguised contempt for Asian societies probably exacerbated the Soviet Union's brutal condescension toward its Asian components.

Max Weber, in his sociology of Asian religions, sought to answer the same question as Marx: why did capitalism not arise in Asia? He gave many of the same answers--no private property, no middle class, no cities--and his "patrimonial domination" sounded very like Marx's Asiatic Mode of Production. He made subtle comparisons between Calvinism and Oriental religions but his main theme was the contrast between the rational systematic character of the Occidental mind, particularly in law, science, and industry, and the arbitrary and unstable mentality of Asia. But Weber was careful to add (e.g., at page 248 of The Religion of China) that Asia could adopt capitalism. The conditions in which industrialism was invented might be different from the conditions in which it could be reproduced. That would allow Confucian or other Asian values to do the work Calvinism did in the West. This is a breach into which Asian critics have leapt.

Until the Asian tigers gave it the lie, the German story about eternally unchanging Asia had naturally been resented and derided by critics of Orientalism. Said declared dramatically that the Orient refused "to be confined to the fixed status of an object frozen once and for all time in the gaze of Western percipients." Arabs in particular rejected the static image imposed on their societies as though they were as repetitive and unchanging as the desert itself. It was of course no consolation for Asians that their supposed unfitness for capitalism and industry was seized upon by Western Romantics, utopians, libertines, and vegetarians in quest of the simple life and the fuller self. To be sure, the likes of Ruskin, Tolstoy, and Annie Besant for a time found an Oriental echo in Gandhi, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Ananda Coomaraswami, but in today's industrialized (and nuclear-armed) Asia, Gandhi's khaddar and ahimsa (homespun and non-violence) are as dead as the dodo.

The Real Debate

Far from accepting the assertion that power pollutes knowledge, it was the responsibilities that Britons took over from the faltering Moghul Empire at the close of the eighteenth century that protected them from the sort of philosophy of Asian history that the Germans cultivated. Not that comparable myth-making was unknown among the British; we have seen Marx being taken in by some of it. And the India that Burke conjured up at the impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788-95) was a lurid Chu Chin Chow brand of exoticism--theatrical, literary, and Romantic. But these were aberrations in the course of a great political and cultural contest between two parties of practical and well-intentioned men who called each other the Orientalists and the utilitarians or Anglicists. They were the forerunners of today's exponents of Asian values, and of the IMF.

It is a contest worth recalling today when a fabulous period of Asian expansion has crashed to a stop and been called before the court of Western economic rationalism. If we do not recall it, many Asians will, because at such critical moments the intellectual baggage that Asians arrive with is very different from the prepossessions of Westerners. That was the point Sebastian Mallaby made about the significance of Takamori Saigo's story for contemporary Japanese (The National Interest, Summer 1998). Dramatic events of a century and a half ago, the armed challenge to the modernizing Meiji Restoration, can color perceptions of today's economic crisis. The liveliness of recollections of the Orientalist/utilitarian debate has been demonstrated lately by S.N. Mukherjee.

The contest that raged from 1790 to 1830 set the Orientalist party of Warren Hastings and Sir William Jones ("Oriental Jones") against the utilitarians led by Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and Lord Macaulay. At that time (and for about two centuries after), Orientalism meant something very different from Said's travesty. It was an ideology, a movement, and a set of social institutions that defended Asian values and languages from the inroads of utilitarianism, evangelicalism, and English. Politicians in Britain and Company officials in India could be found on both sides, as could Indian intellectuals in Calcutta and Bombay.

Philip Francis, Hastings' principal accuser, believed in "imposing Enlightenment and European principles of political economy on India", whereas Hastings, as governor of Bengal, followed Clive's method of working through Indian agents and institutions, and abiding by Indian law. This was not simply a tactic "to manipulate as best he could the residual machinery of the Moghul Empire", for it had a solid philosophical foundation. Hastings knew Persian, Urdu, and Bengali and he was sympathetic to Asian cultures. He resisted (as Burke did later) having British law override Hindu and Islamic legal traditions. He got Oriental Jones, a judge of the Supreme Court, to apply his extraordinary linguistic abilities to the translation and codification of those native laws. He defended a system of taxation that was anathema to the utilitarians. His opponents said he had caught some of the Oriental despot's indifference to corruption.

Among the Sanskrit and Persian classics Hastings had translated was the Bhagvat Gita, and in a preface written for it he said something many Asians today would sign with both hands: European values, he said, "are by no means applicable to the language, sentiments, manners or morality appertaining to a system of society with which we have been for ages unconnected, and of an antiquity preceding even the first efforts of civilization in our own quarter of the globe."

There was nothing Romantic or impractical in these attitudes. Hastings wanted Bengal to prosper, and the Company (and its officers!) to make money. At his trial he showed himself, in contrast to Burke's showmanship, to be pragmatic, technical, analytical, and philological. He let India speak for itself, and cited Islamic law in his defense. Oriental Jones, as Mukherjee has shown, was no Romantic either, for all that he wrote poetry. He had no more time for Indian spirituality and irrationality than he had for Burke and Rousseau, whom he found "wonderfully absurd." The Orientalists thought that India would prosper best under "the true ancient Hindu constitution" and under a personal rather than an impersonal form of government. Burke, as a romantic conservative, was by instinct on their side but he was shocked by the corruption and summary justice of British rule in India, and he blamed (unfairly) the Orientalists for it.

Their more serious opponents were the apostles of philosophical radicalism, utilitarianism, universalism, Anglicism, and evangelicalism. Save on that last score, their leader was Jeremy Bentham, who aspired to be India's lawgiver, with James Mill as his prophet and his agent within the East India Company; Mill in turn got Macaulay his job on the Supreme Council of India. Their aim was a culturally and linguistically homogeneous British India dedicated to progress and modernization. Their bte noire was Burke, and when he and others accused them of meddling in Indian affairs as a way of getting at their opponents in England, they replied disarmingly, well of course.

And why not? Did they not have in utilitarianism a universal policy that could be applied as well in one country as in another? Economic policy would come from Ricardo, Malthus, and Mill, and there was no need of local knowledge or sympathy. This attitude is carried to absurd extremes in our day, in the application to Asian cultures of rational choice theory, i.e., the reduction of all social and political action to a simplified economic psychology. (See Chalmers Johnson and E.B. Keehn, "A Disaster in the Making: Rational Choice and Asian Studies", The National Interest, Summer 1994). In similar vein, there is a passage in Mill's History of British India that could have come from a back room at the IMF: "As soon as everything of importance is expressed in writing, a man who is duly qualified may obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England, than he could obtain during the course of longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India."

To which Oriental Jones replied, "No man ever became an historian in his closet." But the utilitarians accused Jones of suffering from "a susceptible imagination" that made him giddy with delusions of vast Indian riches, material and cultural; and they accused his supporters of being "Hindooised." Their pet horror was the "corruption" of Indian society; they had Indians dismissed from all senior positions in administration. The use of Persian as the official language was stopped, and all education was to be in English. Macaulay wrote a Benthamite legal code of civil and criminal procedures to replace the haphazard amalgam of Hindu, Islamic, and English law administered by the courts. In 1835 he wrote a famous Minute on education that still smells of sulfur in Indian nostrils: Britain should aim, he said, at creating "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste and intellect."

The Anglicists won some notable outright victories, such as the outlawing of suttee (widow burning) in 1829, and they prevailed in many other areas, from taxation to education. But two things about their preponderance become especially relevant whenever the conflict of Asian values and Western rationalism breaks out, as it has again in our time.

The first point is that the Anglicists' victories were never final, and the Orientalists never left the field of battle. Clive Dewey has shown that both "assimilators" (Anglicists and evangelicals) and "preservationists" (Orientalists) became entrenched in the Indian Civil Service, and the pendulum swung between them throughout the two hundred years of British rule. "The ICS veered between these two poles, between assimilation and preservation. There were always Westernizers, who wanted to change India, and Orientalists who loved it as it was. What varied was their relative strength." Thus, after decades of free-trade liberalism, the preservation of traditional institutions--joint family, caste, ancient estate--again became the aim of government policy. What the disciples of Ricardo and Mill saw as obstacles to private enterprise, the disciples of Sir Henry Maine and T.H. Green saw as the support of the social fabric.

The second point is how it came about that the Westernizers could gain the upper hand as often as they did. This is where Said's analysis is so deficient that it has been repudiated even by his acolytes, for he argues that the West forced its ideology on the Asians, who suffered passively the crushing imprint of imperialism. In reality, imperial power in Asia was always unsteady and often tenuous. "There was always a revolt somewhere in the subcontinent", wrote C.A. Bayly in Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (1988). Its ideas and policies won ground only when influential sectors of local opinion--power elites and traditional authorities--were persuaded of them. When they were, what ensued was never a passive acquiescence in Western rationalism or English education but a rough-hewn compromise, some balance or reconciliation between modern and traditional, foreign and local, Asian and Western ideas.

If the past is any guide, the latest collision of Asian and Western values will have the usual inconclusive upshot. There will likely be no irreversible defeat of Asian values and no outright acceptance of Western policies. There was no call to see in Asia's prosperity some defiance of Western rationality, science, or democracy. And there is no call to see in the inevitable failure of competing export-led growth strategies the imminent victory of globalization and universal Westernization. Asians will no doubt continue--and each Asian nation in its own way--to find their own balance between traditional values and utilitarian advantage.

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